Members of the new Healthy Soils Task Force are ready to get down and dirty about addressing Nebraska’s soil issues.

The group met for the first time Aug. 14, in the Nebraska State Office Building in Lincoln. In addition to Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, and Nebraska State Senators Steve Halloran and Dan Hughes, members included representatives of natural resource districts, production agriculture and agribusiness, as well as academic experts and agents from environmental organizations, appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

“We have a really diverse mix of soil health experts,” said HSTF member Dr. Hannah Birgé of Omaha. The doctor is the director of water and agriculture programs for the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

While coming from a range of backgrounds, the assembly’s effort was focused.

“There was so much enthusiasm and purpose at the first meeting,” Birgé said. “The group repeatedly affirmed the importance of protecting and restoring Nebraska’s healthy soils.”

There was also a note of urgency in the room, she said. The issues facing soil health are complex and daunting, and there is little time to waste.

Birgé paraphrased, stating, “The best time to plant cover crops was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

In addition to the Nature Conservancy, advocates of Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and the Soil Health Partnership of the National Corn Growers Association are on the HSTF.

Keith Berns of Bladen, Nebraska, is employed at Green Cover Seed and works with SARE. Gregory A. Whitmore of Shelby runs Mega Farms Inc., and is a member of the Soil Health Partnership.

Michael L. McDonald of Palmyra, Nebraska is the Sub-District 2 representative of Lancaster County in the Nemaha Natural Resources District.

Those members from the agribusiness side of things were: Jerry Alleman of Wayne, Richard Bartek of Ithaca, Robert E. Betger of Fairmont, Jeffrey W. Steffen of Crofton, and Steven W. Tucker of Venango.

“I make my living farming so it is important to note that this Task Force consists of mostly farmers,” Steffen said. “I personally feel that we need to prove that [the HSTF] can rectify a lot of our environmental problems and mainly prove that it is extremely important for the economic health of the farmers themselves.”

Lisa Lunz of Wakefield is also an appointee. Lunz has earned the Outstanding Contributions to Northeast Nebraska Agriculture and Families Award and is an inductee of the Nebraska Agricultural Hall of Achievement.

Coming from the world of agriculture academia and science were: Dr. Ronald P. Bolze, associate professor of agriculture and rangeland management at Chadron State College; Dr. Charles A. Shapiro, UNL emeritus professor of agronomy; and Dr. Raymond C. Ward of Kearney, founder and owner of Ward Laboratories, Inc.

Senators Halloran and Hughes are participants of the HSTF due to their status as chairpersons of the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee and Natural Resources Committee, respectively. Either they or their representatives will attend each meeting.

At this meeting, Berns was elected chair of the HSTF. Senator Julie Slama (District 1) represented the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee and Senator Tim Gragert (District 40) represented the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee. They are non-voting members. Dr. Shapiro was unable to attend.

Also in attendance at the inaugural meeting were: Steve Roth, Nebraska Department of Agriculture; Jacy Spencer, Nebraska Department of Agriculture; Aaron Hird, USDA-NRCS; Nathan Pflueger of Pheasants Forever; Kelsi Wehrman of Pheasants Forever; Kristi Block, Nebraska Grain and Feed Association; Dean Edsen, Nebraska Association of Resource Districts; and Keith Byerly of Bloomfield, field manager for Soil Health Partnership at the National Corn Growers Association.

Hird, an NRCS State Soil Health Specialist, gave a presentation on the general principals of healthy soils and an overview of the federal conservation programs offered through NRCS. Dr. Birgé presented an overview of the activities and objectives of the Soil Health Roundtable (formerly Soil Health Coalition).

The HSTF was formed due to LB243. The bill was introduced by Sen. Gragert, a member of the Natural Resources Committee, in January and passed with a unanimous vote in April.

“A group of elder citizens, including several former University employees, approached me with the idea for the Healthy Soils Task Force, knowing that water quality issues were a top priority of mine,” Gragert said. “Having worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service for more than 30 years, I have a deep interest in soil health and water quality. I supported their ideas and agreed to work on the legislation.”

Initially, Gragert heard some concern that the legislation would be just “another mandate on agricultural producers.” He said he made his intent clear, in that he was not interested in mandates, but rather to make more information available and easier to obtain on the advantages of improved soil health by better communicating the economic and environmental benefits of healthy soil management practices.

“Currently, the significant cost of chemical inputs to attain high crop yields is being met with low commodity prices, which has created a real hardship for Nebraska farmers,” he said. “As an agricultural state, the farm economy is an important factor in the well-being of our state.”

The emphasis of the bill is to develop a healthy soils initiative and a plan to carry it out “using standards for organic matter, biological activity, biological diversity and soil structure as measures to assess improved soil health.”

When developing the plan, the task force will examine how to provide farmers and ranchers with research, education, technical assistance and demonstration projects; financial incentives to improve soil health; and information on the contribution of livestock to soil health.

“I feel that improving the health of Nebraska’s soil is the most effective way for agricultural producers to increase crop and forage productivity and profitability, while also protecting the environment,” Gragert said. “As farmers and ranchers become more aware of the benefits of healthy soil, the state as a whole will benefit.”

It also will identify goals and timelines for improving the state’s soil health through voluntary partnerships among producers and state and local agencies, as well as public and private entities.

According to Birgé, these objectives fit together perfectly with the approach of the Nature Conservancy and other environmental groups.

“Often we find that farmers are already doing good conservation work, and then our job is to learn from them and, where necessary, connect them to a broader learning community,” she said. “In our agricultural work, we co-create those solutions with farmers, local Natural Resources Districts and the broader community to make sure our work is relevant and lasting.”

One perennial challenge faced in soil health efforts generally is the ability to scale up local successes, Birgé said.

“The Healthy Soils Task Force is a really exciting opportunity to address that because it provides a testbed for new ways to scale up soil health practice adoption,” she said. “We know that farmers and private civil society groups are leading the way on soil health and the Task Force provides a visible platform for us to unify and promote that work.”

The task force is required to submit its plan, findings and recommendations to the Legislature and the governor by Jan. 1, 2021, when it terminates.

“Based on the backgrounds of the persons appointed to the task force, I believe our work will be very productive,” Gragert said.

A number of other states have initiated formal soil health programs, he said. Before the next meeting, HSTF members have been asked to conduct research to determine what these other states may be currently doing to address the issue of healthy soil.

The efforts of the HSTF will positively affect all Nebraskans, not just producers, Gragert said.

“I feel that it will result in a win-win-win situation — a win for the producer, a win for the consumer and a win for the environment,” he said.

The next meeting of the Healthy Soils Task Force is scheduled for 1 p.m., Wed., Sept. 25, at the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District, 319 E. 25th St., York, Neb.

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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